For decades, Louisiana has been ignoring the realities of transportation funding. Year after year, politicians at the state level have refused to increase the basic money for roads and bridges, which is provided by gasoline and diesel taxes.
The inevitable has occurred: Roads get worse. Bridges are closed. Essential repairs and expanded capacity are put off.
Unhappily, when the state Department of Transportation and Development cobbles together a funding source that includes tolls, the folks who would pay them get upset. Some citizens in Plaquemines Parish want a new bridge at Belle Chasse, but they don’t want to pay tolls to fund it.
A new Belle Chasse bridge is to be funded in part with tolls. It would replace the old bridge built in 1967 and the tunnel dating from 1955.
DOTD did its job: Lacking a proper funding source, it put together some federal and state money and developed a public-private partnership to build a four-lane bridge. Such partnerships, call P3s, are common around the country, but Belle Chasse is the first major use of this scheme in Louisiana, and is dependent on tolls.
When legislators have discussed raising the gas tax to a reasonable level, people often have objected, saying that tolls should be used. But now, residents of Plaquemines Parish will have to pay 45 cents per trip across the new bridge. Trucks, vehicles from outside the parish and others would pay up to $6.90 per trip.
The protests may seem a bit late, after extensive public meetings and a long pre-construction process. However, the residents criticizing the tolls do have a strong argument about one thing: political favoritism.
Earlier this year the Legislature approved a $690 million transportation spending plan that will be financed by revamping how the state spends settlement dollars from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil spill. The projects most favored by the fund diversion are at Port Fouchon on the coast and a needed $125 million La. Hwy. 415 connector in West Baton Rouge Parish.
Using one-time money for road and bridge projects is usually sensible. But that cash is never enough. The raid on the BP funds, including some designated for the state's rainy-day savings account, was a way for legislators to pick favored projects without committing to the long-term funding needs for transportation.
Just like the political cry for tolls as a substitute for gas taxes, this is a dodge that has upset folks at Belle Chasse who will face toll booths by about 2023, and for decades thereafter.
So what is the conclusion to be drawn? We don’t like tolls, either. We can’t count on such windfalls as the BP money, even if projects funded by that money are also needed. But few in the Legislature want to take responsibility for a gas tax increase.